The top 5 Iain M Banks novels

Over three decades after they were first published, the Culture novels of Iain M Banks are more popular than ever.

Our first image of Iain M Banks’s Culture universe is a man drowning in sewage: a stark precedent for what was to come. And 30 years after its first publication, Consider Phlebas remains a novel grimily opposed to the shiny rocketships and derring-do of most space opera. Banks broke the genre apart, and with a little inspiration from M John Harrison and Ursula Le Guin (and some outright theft from Larry Niven), he created a series of space opera novels that remains unmatched.

But for all his mastery of high-octane action sequences, and the sheer invention of his Big Dumb Objects, Banks’s science fiction – credited to M Banks, his literary fiction going without the middle initial – has lasted because of his deft balance of galactic scope with human-scale stories. Stories of loss, grief, rebirth and self-discovery are the core of the best Culture novels. He did not write sci-fi and literary novels – he was a master of storytelling that combined both.

These are my top five Culture novels, but I could have included at least five more. I’d put Use of Weapons at six, which might perplex fans of Banks at his most gung-ho. Seven would be short-story collection The State of the Art, which contains only brief glimpses of the Culture. Matter (eight), Inversions (nine) and Surface Detail (10) all have their own strengths, but lack the genius of Banks at his best – which I think you’ll find here:

 

 

 

Five: The Hydrogen Sonata
The final published Culture novel was a return to top form for Banks. The Gzilt are ready to “sublime” to the the next plane of existence. But first some old scores must be settled. It’s the most openly satirical of all Banks’s SF novels, offering an angry critique of “third-way” liberal leaders like Tony Blair. But the star of the show is the Mistake Not, a Culture ship of “non-standard” type IE packing lots of high-level weaponry. It shows exactly how tough the utopian Culture can be.

Four: Excession
Minds – sentient thinking computers – are the secret stars of the Culture novels, but here they take centre stage. What do virtually immortal, super intelligent AIs do for fun? Among other things they play out decades-long plots to topple less developed, more barbaric civilisations. But even Minds sometimes run up against opponents they can’t outwit. Featuring the Affront, a race literally named for how outrageously evil they are, this is Banks at his most playful, comedic and inventive.

Three: Consider Phlebas
After almost drowning the hero in sewage in it’s opening scene, the first published Culture novel goes on a rip roaring killing spree across the major sights of the Banksian universe. Space pirates, ringworlds, cannibal cultists, a lethal card game, and a Planet of the Dead… the Culture is shown through the eyes of those who hate and fear this machine lead society, creating by far the darkest of all Banks’s science fiction writing.

Two: The Player of Games
Both a love poem to the joy of game play, and a warning against the psychology of the game player, the story of the Culture’s best gameplayer, who is on a quest to compete against an alien society where games decide real world hierarchies, is the most complete and accessible book in the Culture series. This makes it a good starting point for the Iain M Banks neophyte, and also the first book I recommend to non-science fiction readers curious about the genre.

One: Look to Windward
I suspect that Look To Windward was Iain Banks showing off at the peak of his talents – and what a great show it is. The meddling Culture have accidentally set off a caste war in a civilisation they were trying to liberate. A young, high born officer, maimed in battle and broken by grief, is manipulated to commit a terrorist attack in revenge against the Culture. Meanwhile, an exiled composer creates a symphony to mark the light of an ancient super-nova, seen at two points and six centuries apart, by the immortal Mind who blew the star up. The fact that half the cast are six limbed tiger-like predators somehow only adds to the poetry. Look to Windward is where Banks’s interleaving of science fiction imagery, and literary themes,reaches it’s own symphonic climax, making it not just the greatest Culture novel, but perhaps the greatest ever science fiction novel.

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Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century

Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guadian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.

“Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic.”

It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.

Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.

It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism. Apparently realistic narratives that sometimes contain fantastic elements, like the high-tech gizmos of spy thrillers, also fail as transrealism because their plots and archetypal characters are very far from real. Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic, for a very specific purpose, that seems to have become tremendously relevant for contemporary readers.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.

This proliferation of the fantastic in contemporary fiction has at times been described as the “mainstreaming of science fiction”. But sci-fi continues on much as it ever has, producing various escapist fantasies for readers who want time out from reality. And of course there’s no shortage of purely realist novels populating Booker prize lists and elsewhere. Both sci-fi and realism provide a measure of comfort – one by showing us the escape hatch from mundane reality, the other by reassuring us the reality we really upon is fixed, stable and unchanging. Transrealism is meant to be uncomfortable, by telling us that our reality is at best constructed, at worst non-existent, and allowing us no escape from that realisation.

“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.” Rucker’s formulation of transrealism as revolutionary becomes especially meaningful when compared to the uses transrealism is put to by the best of its practitioners. Atwood, Pynchon and Foster-Wallace all employed transrealist techniques to challenge the ways that “consensus reality” defined who was normal and who was not, from the political oppression of women to the spiritual death inflicted on us all by modern consumerism.

Today transrealism underpins much of the most radical and challenging work in contemporary literature. Colson Whitehead’s intelligent dissection of the underpinnings of racism in The Intuitionist and his New York Times transrealist twist on the zombie-apocalypse novel, Zone One. Monica Byrne’s hallucinatory road-trip across the future of the developing world and the lives of women caught between poverty and high-speed technological change in The Girl in the Road. Matt Haig’s compulsive young adult novel The Humans, which invites the reader to see human life through alien eyes. Transrealism has 30 years of history behind it, but it’s in the next 30 years that it may well define literature as we come to know it.

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Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF: what is the true definition?

If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.

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In perhaps the all time most fiercely contested fight over an acronym ever, fans have been declaring sides on the Science Fiction vs SciFi vs SF debate for almost five decades. But, I hear the still sane among you declare, what does this even mean? And why should you care?

For the ever growing army of writers, bloggers, editors, critics, academics and just plain old obsessive fans of this thing that may (or may not) be called sci-fi, there is at least some method in this madness. Each name and definition reveals a different aspect of the immense creativity sheltering within sci-fi. Or SF. Or whatever the hell it’s called!

So, here is a brief glossary of the various competing definitions of sci-fi. Much of this may reveal some bias on my part, so please feel free to correct me where I have strayed from the facts as you understand them.

Science fiction n by the late 1930s, stories featuring space rockets and robots had been around in the pages of pulp magazines for a long time. It was then that influential editor John W Campbell hit upon the brilliant marketing strategy of calling these stories “science fiction”, thereby claiming a veneer of scientific credibility for the genre. The idea stuck, and is the reason many readers now insist science fiction must be based on real science.

Hard SF n not satisfied with claiming scientific credibility, many writers of made-up stories further distinguish their work by only making up stories based on ideas drawn from the hard sciences. In particular, physics. Unless, that is, they happen to need a faster-than-light engine to transport characters across the universe, in which case they just ignore physics all together. See also aliens, time travel etc.

Sci-fi n Star Wars made “sci-fi” big business. But for many, it is not true science fiction because it has no basis in science. In fact, most of what the general public thinks of as science fiction is viewed with some disdain by core science fiction fans, who dismiss it as “sci-fi” or “skiffy”. Sci-fi became an early catch all term for many related things, like video games and RPGs, that are now more often called Geek or Nerd Culture.

SF abbreviation because science fiction fans didn’t like “sci-fi”, they started abbreviating what they did like to “SF”. Pronounced “ess eff”, not “sniff”. Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means “science fiction” before then correct people when they say, “Oh, you mean sci-fi,” which tends to annoy both parties. If someone says “I read / write SF” you know you’re talking to a true believer.

Speculative fiction n now things get complicated. Because lots of science fiction writers don’t actually have any science in their SF, they call it “speculative fiction” instead. To make matters worse, even though it’s specifically not science fiction, speculative fiction likewise gets abbreviated to SF. This has also become the default term for literary writers who want to write fiction with science in it, but without calling it science fiction.

So, to recap. Science fiction is a genre consisting of made-up stories with science in. Unless the stories are sci-fi, which doesn’t have science but is what most people think of as science fiction. Unless it’s called SF, of course, which most people think means “San Francisco”. Or speculative fiction, which is what posh people call sci-fi.

Phew! Right, now then.

Fantasy n (‘fæntsi) one solution would be to say that, because all these stories are primarily made-up or imagined by the writer, they are all kinds of fantasy. Problem is, because of JRR Tolkien and Lord of the Rings, most people think “fantasy” refers to stories with elves in. They therefore get confused if the word is also used to talk about stories with rockets in. Fantastika has been mooted, mostly by the critic John Clute, as an altertive catch all term, but sounds a little too much like a really good curry

I could continue with definitions of cyberpunk, steampunk, weird fiction, horror, urban fantasy, new weird, new wave … the list goes on. They’re all part of what makes [insert preferred collective noun] such an oddball and fascinating community to be part of, and create stories in.

But I did say there was method in this madness. Boil this insanely complex and largely pointless argument down to its essentials, and you arrive at something quite interesting. Is it enough for a story to be purely the product of its creator’s imagination? Or should a story instead be extrapolated from an external, rational and scientifically provable truth? In a world starkly divided between reason and fantasy, it’s an intriguing question to ask.

Originally pubished in The Guardian.

Write better sci-fi stories with this simple idea

When high-falutin people talk about sci-fi you’ll often hear them use words like novum and the like. Critic and academic Darko Suvin came up with novum to describe the…thing…at the heart of every sci-fi story that makes it sci-fi. Androids hiding as humans! A world populated by talking apes! A portal that leads to every possible world! These are all novum of a kind.

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The problem. And it’s a pretty big problem, at least if you’re a jobbing sci-fi author who would like to get read (and hence paid). The problem is that your novum, even when it sounds mighty interesting, is actually boring. There, I said it, novums are fucking insanely dull!

“something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being”

But but BUT Damo! A portal that leads to every possible world sounds really interesting! What did I just say? It SOUNDS interesting. But if it’s actually going to BE interesting for your audience, the novum has to do something much more than just sit around being a cool idea.

All stories, not just sci-fi tales, contain something like a novum. The Oscar winning 1979 movie Kramer vs Kramer isn’t even slightly sci-fi. But the film still has a novum…a couple go through a difficult divorce. But the divorce is only the surface, exterior level of the story. It provides the framework for the much more important story happening on the interior level, as Dustin Hoffman’s character has to finally grow up and take responsibility for home and family. It’s not details of divorce proceedings that make Kramer vs Kramer compelling, it’s the inner human journey, the EMOTIONAL journey, that the audience are captured by.

How hard do I have to argue to persuade you that a story that’s actually about divorce proceedings, with long detailed speeches from lawyer characters about the details of marriage contract law, will be quite boring? Then why would a story about a portal that connects all world’s, with achingly long monologues by competent scientists on the details of multiverse physics, be any more interesting? If the story is about its novum, it’s going to bore the hell out of people, because the novum is only intellectually interesting.

Humans are creatures of emotion. And stories are powered by our hunger for emotional experience. The problem – the HUGE problem – for science fiction is that it wants to dispense with emotion and deal only with the intellectual. And so it obsesses over novums, concepts, ideas, explanation and other intellectual modes. And that leads to stories that might be interesting, but are never compelling.

What’s the solution? Remember the portal that connects all worlds? If you find that, or another novum interesting, it’s because something about it echoes within the vast caverns of your emotional being. Spend some time sitting with your emotional response to the novum that inspire you. A portal that connects all worlds might give those who step into it the chance to be all people. That’s the seed of an emotional experience. Let it grow, and it might one day shiver your audience’s soul.

My name is Damien. I am a writer. Patreon is part of how I get paid. Become a patron.